Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bumper stickers

I've always been fascinated by the way people attempt to express themselves with their cars. We are a car culture, of course, so our automobiles have become both second living-rooms and a way to telegraph our status. I especially love the bumper stickers, the placards, the antenna balls. People use them to alert the world to their specialness, their individuality. But of course, trying to express yourself in shorthand with a sticker on your car, a sticker that at least a million other people have, is a bit of a lost cause.

It can be well-done, of course. My friend, Annemarie, has a parody of that woman's pornographic figure that you see on mud-flaps of semis morphed into a woman in a skirt reading a book. And I have to say that I was proud to be one of the first to have an Obama sticker, back in the early days of the Obama-Clinton battle. For awhile in Marin, there was someone going around plastering bumper-stickers on SUV's reading "My car is killing the earth". I had a boyfriend years ago, a guy in his twenties, that had a sticker reading "Sexy Grandpa". It was somehow very fitting. Maybe that's why that relationship didn't stand the test of time.

There's always some kind of trend happening in car decoration. Years ago it was those "Baby on Board" signs, which I found confusing. So if my car is veering out of control, I'm not going to hit your car with the baby in it but instead, in my leisure, choose the single guy in the Datsun next to you?

Then there were the small, metal fish ornaments. At first, I thought they indicated that a fisherman was driving. It was a good year before I was informed that the fish was a symbol of Jesus. Over time, of course, the fish got legs and a Darwin label.

I've noticed, actually, that there's a cycle to these trends. They start in earnest, become more popular and more personalized and then finally are parodied. Like the "My child is..." bumper stickers. The first ones said, for instance, "My child is on the honor roll at Mill Valley Middle School." The next generation, as people got less ambitious, said something like "My child is a participating student at Old Mill School". Then you got the jokes. "My kid knocked up your honor student". "My kid kicked your honor student's ass". "My child is an honor student at the state correctional facility."

There was the "Got Milk?" commercial which spawned all kinds of clever stickers. "Got Jesus?" "Got twins?" "Got chi?" "Got mullet?" "Got hula?" "Got hope?" Over time, they got very specific. "Got colonics?" "Got kombucha?" "Got stem-cells?" It's so over done that every time I see one I think, "Got an idiot driving the car?"

There are the yellow antenna balls that started out as a simple happy face. Now the little yellow guy can be Santa, a cowgirl, a policeman, a princess, a devil or a football player for any team under the sun.

There are, of course, the personalized license plates. I had a rule when I was single that I wouldn't date a guy with a vanity plate. Because that person clearly took themselves too seriously. A bit harsh, I suppose, but you've got to do something to narrow the field. The best is when the plate is paired with a personalized license plate frame. Like a frame that says "Riley and Madison's..." and a plate that reads "HOTMAMA".

Ben and I have even had our own ideas for bumper stickers over the years. Ben came up with "Jesus!". It could be devotional or a curse, depending on your point of view.

The latest trend are the family stickers on the bottom left corner of the back window. At first, it was simple figures of varying sizes representing Dad, Mom and however many kids. Occasionally, I've seen a long line of kids. Like six. I sidle up to the driver to size him up, thinking what kind of maniac has six kids? Are they counting nieces and nephews or what? I wonder how they fit all those kids in that car. Lately, these stickers have been getting more customized. You get a kid riding a skateboard, playing the guitar, skiing. There are dogs, cats, rabbits.

Wouldn't it be awesome - and tasteless - to have a white man riding a mountain bike, a white woman pushing a vacuum, a medium-sized white girl with her nose in a book, a smaller white girl with a baby-doll under one arm, reaching out to hit a little black boy with an Afro. His mouth is open in a howl and he's kicking at his sister. That would be self-expression. The blog in pictures.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Left

We got the news this weekend that our next-door neighbors in Marin, the Hutchinsons, some of our very favorite people on the planet, are moving. It's one town over, the charming Fairfax, ten minutes away, but I am devastated. As we move back into our house in June, they will be moving out.

When they moved in three years ago I heard from another neighbor that the new tenants were a family. They had two kids, ages five and three (exactly the ages of Mae and Lana). I was ecstatic. And that was before I met them. It turned out that Lee and Ann were cool, funny, generous - the whole BFF package. Ann was pregnant then with Luke, who would, it turned out, be Mihiretu's age. Their daughter is named Mae. We had the only two Maes in Marin county within a hundred yards of each other. It seemed meant to be.

We've always known that this was probably a temporary situation. They were renting the house, though they were looking to buy. For as long as they've been there, the four of us have been strategizing on how Ann and Lee could convince their landlord to sell to them. Lee sent endless emails to the owner offering to buy the house. Ben and I would lay in bed at night with our eyes closed, holding hands, envisioning them owning the house. Fucking hippies.

And, indeed, just a few weeks ago, the owner decided to sell. But he was asking two hundred thousand dollars over market and by then he had thoroughly exhausted Ann and Lee with his caginess. At the very same time they found a property they fell in love with. Huge, flat, sunny lot right next to open space with a real, honest-to-God, child-sized train running through it. I mean, come on.

Ben and I put together a plea after we heard the news, a carefully sculpted email. Don't you realize, we asked, how special it is that we live next to each other? We've had this whole long year to regret our terrible mistake of moving away from them. We asked them to consider staying.

A lot of nerve, really, making that kind of request. We've been leaving people all over the place. Five years ago we left our idyllic micro-community in Fairfax to move to San Anselmo. Then, last summer, we up and moved again, this time all the way to San Jose. And now, in June, we'll leave our friends here to move back home. All these moves were (and are) difficult for us. Heartbreaking. But I think, in the end, it's easier to be the leaver than the left. It's like breaking up. Yeah, it sucks either way but it's infinitely more sucky to be deserted then to be the one who makes the decision to go.

And so now we have a taste of our own medicine. And it is one bitter pill. It's like a mini-death. I know that we'll still be close to the Hutchinsons. But I won't be seeing Ann many times a day on our shared driveway with just a ten second news update ("Mihiretu won't nap - I'm going to kill myself and everyone else", "New pair of boots, come over later and tell me if they're good", "Let's meet at the green for dinner at five"). Or calling down to see if she has any cayenne, evaporated milk or cream of tartar and having one of her kids, an "emissary", run it up and stay to play. Watching the kids climb the hill behind our houses, searching for bunnies or wild turkey or lizards. That stuff, that impromptu give and take, won't happen. And it's killing me.

I try to be philosophical at times like these. That yes, things change, they always do but as old things leave, new things come. When God closes a door, he opens a window. All that crap. But all I can feel right now is sad. All year, I've just been wanting to get back home, to be with my friends again, especially the Hutchinsons, my extended family. And the thought of driving past their empty house or, even worse, seeing someone else's car parked in front, I can't take it.

I never knew what they meant by you can't go home again. Now I do. Yes, you can return to the place but you can't return to the time, to the era. Inevitably, it will have changed. Such a bummer. Because I'm so homesick.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The history of curses

It's no secret that I have a fascination with swearing. I had an affinity for foul language even at an early age. When I was five, we had a Tahitian exchange student. A swap had been arranged by a family friend. My sister, then seventeen, would spend the summer in Tahiti with a family this friend knew. Vatea, the Tahiitian family's seventeen-year-old daughter, would return with my sister and spend the school year with us.

The casual set-up probably foretold some of the problems that arose. My sister had a terrible time in Tahiti (leave it to her to have a terrible time in Tahiti) and returned rather traumatized. Vatea turned out to be something of a tramp. She managed to pick up three guys on the plane to the States and, upon arrival, promptly announced to my parents that she was going to live with them.

My father, always in command, set her firmly back on the prescribed course. And so a sullen and resentful Vatea moved into my room and I relocated to the couch in the study (very happily - it was closer to my parents, who, at that stage, I worshiped).

I have only the vaguest memory of her appearance. I remember thinking that she was gorgeous but I've seen what my girls were impressed with at the age of five. The shinier and more gaudy, the better. I do remember she had a butterfly tattoo on her ass which she was more than willing to show off. She was, I'm certain, sexy (hence the guys on the airplane).

She lasted perhaps a week, maybe two, before her bad behavior (smoking, provocative clothing, general surliness) set the volcano that was my father boiling and she was summarily dispatched back to the islands.

After we returned from putting her on the plane (and we did, literally, watch until the doors were shut to make sure she was truly gone), we ventured, as a family, into my bedroom to survey the damage. The room reeked of cigarette smoke and too-sweet perfume. The clown curtains my mother had made were slashed (and stayed so until she finally sold the house in the nineties). We discovered, when my mother stripped the bed, that not only were there deliberate cigarette burns on the new teak bunk-bed but also carefully etched into the sheets. Vatea had written a number of things with her cigarette. Most of them we couldn't decipher, either due the imperfection of her writing implement or her shaky hold on the English language. One word, however, was clear, even to me, who had yet to start kindergarten.

I looked down at the letters, F-U-K, and said, "That's not how you spell it."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


The day before we moved into the house in San Jose, while we were staying at a nearby hotel, Lana broke out in a horrific rash. It covered her entire body, from her earlobes to her toes. She was itchy and swollen and soon bloody and scabby from scratching. Her first day of kindergarten, three days later, was not her prettiest day. She took it well for a girl who's as vain as her mother.

Two months and twenty-five doctors later, we still didn't have a firm diagnosis. The closest guess we got was extreme (and sudden) sun sensitivity. And so we lather her in Aquafor (to quell the rash) and sunblock (to keep it at bay) and largely, the rash remains dormant. There are often small eruptions on her chin or neck or arms, but nothing like when it first reared it's ugly, pimpled head.

We do, as a family, have a secret theory that Lana's actually allergic to San Jose. That her skin will clear miraculously as soon as we cross the Marin county line on our move home. That, bear with me here, her skin issues are due to our "rash" decision to move to San Jose in the first place. These are the jokes, folks.

Beyond the skin rash, Lana has, for as long as I can remember, had some kind of allergy that manifests in nasal congestion. The girl most always has a runny nose and her speech sounds like she has a perpetual cold. I've promised her that when we return to Marin in June, I'll take her to an allergist and we'll get to the bottom of the situation.

This morning, she wondered aloud if she was allergic to cats. Ben and I, having been awakened, as usual, at five a.m. to our lemon of a cat scratching and howling at the door to our bedroom, smiled furtively at each other. Wouldn't that be convenient, we thought. An excellent excuse to find a home for Daphne, or as we privately refer to her, Fuck-Ass (a name generated in a flustered moment of pique as she was clawing our new couch) . She's problematic. She sent me to urgent care with a flayed hand a couple months ago because I made the mistake of trying to move her while she was dreaming. She pees in the house. And she's just, frankly, not too bright. A big, dumb, fat cat. I apologize to any animal rights activists out there for so demeaning this creature publicly but man, she drives me crazy. Having to choose the well-being of my child over my commitment to this pudgy feline would be a relief.

Next, with a small smile, Lana suggested that maybe she was allergic to Mihiretu. I watched the same train of thought I'd had about Daphne waft through Lana's brain. That would truly be the top prize in the endless sibling rivalry. I quickly assured her that she was stuffed up long before he came on the scene. She returned to her toast with a look of dismay.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I forget every time how much better life is without TV.

We cycle from months (or even years) of very little TV (like a movie once a week) and then start a slow slide with one PBS show, and then two and then, like lately, we're down the waterfall of Elmo and Arthur and Caillou.

We have, once again, cleaned up our act. It's only been a couple days but already everyone's happier. Our mornings are less rushed because I'm not tearing the kids away from the screen to eat, to dress, to put on their shoes, to go out the door. We actually talk to each other. Instead of standing over them asking questions with increasing volume and irritation while they stare blank-eyed and deaf at the television, we are discussing their day as they eat their oatmeal.

I always think the TV makes things easier until we stop watching and I realize it's made things much harder. It is lovely to have them occupied for a gloriously silent half an hour but the price we pay when they disagree on a channel or, even worse, it's time to turn it off, doesn't, in the end, make it worth it. They are, after watching, spaced out, strung out, unhappy. Certainly not the ideal way to start a school day.

And the funny part is, they don't miss it. When I took away TV privileges so suddenly on Saturday, Lana, ever eager to land on a plan, quickly decided that not only should we stop watching for this week, we should make it a permanent change, with the exception of our established movie night on Fridays. Mae, when I asked her about it this morning, said that it was nicer without the TV. Shocking. But they're exactly right.

The one wild card, as always, is Mihiretu. TV has been the one way I can occupy him without actively playing with him or physically restraining him from his path of destruction. How I'm going to make dinner, I don't know.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The kids have been out of school for two weeks. Mae and Mihiretu (private school) were out the week after Easter and Lana (public school) was out this last week. Combine that with the stress of packing up half the house, putting it on the market, trying to keep it spotless while the three kids are doing their usual mess-to-mess procession, then, the veritable straw, Ben went out of town. I woke this morning at 5 AM to Mihiretu scratching my face, insisting I get out of bed. I didn't take it that well. While we've been making great progress, this morning he and I were combative again. He was testing and I was failing. It felt terrible to be back in that dark place, particularly because, now that I have new tools, I have expect more of myself than this morning's incarnation of grumpy, angry mom.

We've been watching way too much TV around here. When we lived in Marin, we watched the occasional movie with the kids but limited it to that. Here, particularly lately with the house for sale, it's been a free-for-all. You might find it on at any hour. And then, when the kids go to bed, all I want to do is watch my Tivoed Survivor or Project Runway or, the creme-de-la-creme, America's Next Top Model. When I want to escape my world, diving into somebody else's silly story is palliative care.

This morning around seven-thirty, the TV had been on since dawn and all three kids were fighting over what to watch. Remotes and fists were flying. It seemed time to pull the plug, quite literally. From the depth of my sleep-deprived gloom, I proclaimed no TV for a week. Firestorm.

Once the dust had settled and we were finally eating breakfast, Lana gave me a new "what if". She has already planned her future family. She really wants to be a mother but she doesn't want to have a baby in her belly. Having had two in mine and, more impactfully, had two come out, I can see where she's coming from. She wants to adopt. This morning, she said that she would adopt a one-year-old from China. Then she came up with the idea of adopting a baby from the orphanage Mihiretu came from in Ethiopia. Yes, she said, a one-year-old boy from Ethiopia. Then, after further thought, she said, "Actually, no, a girl." I smiled and my daughters looked at me questioningly.

"I like girls," I admitted. My history up to now with girl children has been simpler than my experience with my boy. I have no doubt that will change but when I think of girl babies, I feel soft with motherly affection.

"Yeah," Lana said, "Boys are" and here I must interject that Lana has a bit of a speech impediment and what I heard was "assholes."

I howled with laughter. Lana looked confused.

"I said 'rascals'," she said.

"Oh," I agreed, trying to keep a straight face. "Yes, boys can be rascals."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fiercely individual

It's amazing how different the kids are from each other.

Lana is all about "what if". "Mama, what if there was never school except on vacations and then when you went to school, it was a giant school and all the children in the world were there and it was so loud and you couldn't hear anything?" "Mama, what if when you bounced on the trampoline you went all the way into outer space and you landed on a star and you had to live there but there wasn't any food?" "Mama, what if we had to drive all the way to L.A. to get those yogurt things and they weren't even any good and there were really good ones in San Jose but we went all the way there and then we didn't even drink them and Dad didn't go to work? That would not be good."

She also has a need for control. Last night she was having trouble going to sleep so I was sitting next to her in her bed reading my book and scratching her back. After awhile she said, "You can finish those two pages and then you can stop scratching." Most nights, she wants me to check on her during bedtime. I get strict directions. "Check on me in four minutes, please. Set the timer." There is often haggling. "Check on me in two minutes." "Five minutes." "Three!" I set down the law with "Four." Then a grudging "Fine."

Mae is physically gregarious and very strong. Her hands travel on their own accord to touch, tickle or hug those around her. Just about every hug she's ever given me, I've had to say, gasping for breath, "Gentle, Mae, gentle." The customary hug before I leave her at school in the morning generally feels like a Heimlich maneuver. When she was three, she hugged her friend, Ella, then four, so hard that Ella, who is lucky enough to have a richly diverse genetic heritage, squealed, "Mom, Mae just hugged the Native American right out of me!"

Mihiretu is, of course, very much his own man. I can't wait for him to have more language to describe what's going on in that head. I have no doubt it's funny and very interesting. Already, his sense of humor is evident. He plays jokes, he gets jokes, which isn't easy with only a relative handful of words at his disposal.

Fascinating little people.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


A couple days after we brought Mihiretu home from Ethiopia, I hit the wall.

It had been an emotional whirlwind of a trip, 26 hours on a plane coming home, the last two of which Mihiretu keened, so spent and grief-stricken. Then jet-lag, the new three-kid juggle and facing Mihiretu's rejection of me again and again.

And so I found myself on my back porch in San Anselmo, practically sitting in my neighbor's lap. Ann lives next door and is one of the funniest, kindest souls I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. She was holding my hand and I was hyperventilating, putting my head between my knees for oxygen, stuttering and gasping that adopting Mihiretu was the worst mistake I had ever made. That I just fucked up my whole life. That I was stuck, fovever, babysitting for a person that hated me. A person that, quite frankly, at least at that moment, I didn't even like.

Ann did her very best to comfort me. And really, having her hold my hand and listen to my blubbering was the only thing that possibly could have come close to doing the job. Ben was in his own world of overwhelm. We were beyond helping each other, let alone ourselves. Ann told me that it would get better. I wailed that it wouldn't. She told me to give it time, to get some rest. That it was going to be okay. I howled for a good hour before I could finally let loose her hand and send her back down the hill to her house.

And she was right. The next morning, things didn't seem as impossible. And so it's gone, day after day, one foot in front of the other, minute improvement upon improvement. It shocked me, though, how very low I felt at the moment I had achieved a long anticipated dream. I had read about adoption "postpartum depression" but, along with everything else of which I was warned, I was confident it wouldn't happen to me.

A few days after we brought Mae home from the hospital, I was sitting in her little room, listening to Ben coo to her as he changed her diaper. "Oh, I love you so much, do you know that?" At first, I thought he was talking to me because, in our young marriage, we spent a great deal of time expressing exactly why and how we loved each other. When I realized he was talking to the baby, who I, too, adored like nothing I ever had before, I was crestfallen. Cradling Mae in his arms, smiling lovingly into her face, he glanced up and saw tears dripping down my cheeks and off my chin. When he asked me what was wrong and I gulped, "What's happened to us?"

Well, we had a baby, that's what happened. But with that baby, everything was reordered. And it was reordered again with Lana. There were moments in the our first days as a family of four when it all seemed wrong, too. And so again with Mihiretu. This shake-up had new new details but, in the end, it was the same story. The family coalesces again, forms anew, into a richer and more dynamic unit. It's that transition that's the killer.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I hate it

Mihiretu has elaborated on his rating system. Now we get not only "I like it" but "I hate it". It is, however, voiced only when he's exaggerating for comic effect. As in "Too-pay (toothpaste), I hate it", while cantering around the living-room just before bed. As yet, it hasn't been used to hurt feelings. Though I'm trying to emotionally prepare myself, just in case.

Generally, things between him and me have been infinitely better. It seems all that praising is doing its magic. The other day, I told him (as I do on the hour) that I loved him. He replied, as he often does, "I yuv you," and then added, as he always does, "I like it, Daddy." And I agreed. I like Daddy, too. But then, after a moment's thought, after seeming to weigh Ben and I in his mind, he said generously, "I like it, Mommy." Triumph.

Goodbye, San Jose

We put the San Jose house up on the market yesterday. We move back home to Marin in June. We are ecstatic to be returning to our roots, to our place. And...I'm finding myself feeling sentimental.

The house, of course, is all shiny for sale. The sad, derelict shell that we bought last summer is now a completely revamped mid-century dream. And I do love this house. It's an Eichler. It's built around an atrium so from almost anywhere in the house, with the exception of the bedrooms, you can see what everyone's up to, an excellent attribute with small children. Plus, the experience of looking through a rainstorm at your living-room is very cozy. I'm safe and warm inside but I'm all but in the downpour.

And then, there are our neighbors. Our friends next door, the Germans, with whom we spend almost all our time. They're always up for playing or chatting or lending an egg. And the father and son team across the street, who so intimidated me at first with their dirt-bikes and their Metallica and their ginormous RV, have turned out to be two of the sweetest guys I know. And the Canadian family down the court, with their three girls, so lovely and kind and soft-spoken, so Canadian. Monika, the dramatic Czech, who ferries Lana to school every morning, designed our beautiful yard and always has something she's excited about, good or bad. Annemarie, the renegade San Franciscan, who also seems to have one foot in and one foot out of San Jose, tattooed, funky, darkly funny. A bumper-sticker supporting gay marriage on her station wagon, bless her.

Then there are my friends outside the neighborhood. And I must admit now, that I've made friends. Kelly, the babysitter, whose qualities I've already enumerated. My kindergarten mommy friends; Erin, warm and covertly sarcastic (surprising in a room parent), Tracy, whip-smart Midwesterner, Bess, globe-trotting cancer survivor and sweet as pie, Lorraine, slightly sour Brit (do they come any other way?) and just my type. And really, the biggest and best, Sonja next door (my lord, she's a neighbor and a friend, what is this, a Safeway commercial?), who has been there for me since the first moment we moved here, who's seen me through unpacking and changing schools and Ben's work trips and making the decision to move home. She, that sneaky lady, in her slightly tough, no bull-shit German way, is going to leave the biggest hole in my heart.

And San Jose itself, damn it, for all my snobbery and complaints, is many things that San Anselmo is not. There is a huge ethnic, economic mix of people. It is a melting pot. The kids and I went to Happy Hollow yesterday, a kid fantasyland. A petting zoo, crazy climbing structures, a carousel, even a little roller coaster. Everywhere I looked I could see people of every hue and class, all climbing and petting and coasting together. You don't get that in Marin.

This moment, like most, is not what I thought it would be. I thought I would be feeling relief and joy and yes, I do feel that. But I'm also a person that falls in love easily. And I guess I'm a little in love with San Jose. It needs to be done, but I'm sorry we're breaking up. It's not you, San Jose, it's me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Helper

WIth the advent of Mihiretu, Mae has become my right hand man. She's most always up for checking on her brother if he's out on the cul-de-sac, picking up a Croc if it's dropped as I carry him, answering the phone politely if I'm in the shower.

The other day I had all three kids in the car and I was craving coffee. I only drink decaf these days, but the java jones dies hard. It was raining and Mihiretu was about to drop off for a nap. Pulling them all out of the van and herding them into Peets didn't seem worth it. Then inspiration struck. For the next couple of miles, Mae and I practiced my order until she had it memorized. We lucked out with a parking space right in front. I handed Mae three bucks and my travel cup and out she went, feeling so adult.

Minutes later, she emerged triumphant. She hopped in the van, handed me my coffee and change with a proud smile. I quizzed her about her experience. She said that the girl who took her order asked no questions. What that lady made of an eight-year-old ordering a decaf latte, I have no idea.

As I drove away, savoring the first sips of that foamy yumminess, I marveled. That tiny baby with the mohawk now reads novels, comes up to my breastbone and buys me coffee. Yay, Mae.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I met Lorraine in grad school, and though I loved that creative writing program, I value her friendship more than my degree. She's a brilliant writer, someone whom I'll be proud to say I knew before the Nobel. Even better, she's an excellent friend, someone who loves to talk about the real stuff, the dark and the light. A sparkling mind inside delightfully fashionable wrappings.

We've always lived at least forty-five minutes apart so, especially since we had children, we need to make a point to see each other. We meet for dinner somewhere in between our homes at least every couple months. We used to meet at O'Chame in Berkeley, a hip, upscale Japanese place. Since I made the move to San Jose, we've taken to meeting in Fremont, an unlikely spot for a foodie rendezvous. We found what turned out to be an incredible Afghani restaurant. Some of the best food I've found anywhere. Surprising, but true.

At our last dinner, a couple months ago, I was in a particularly dark place. We were so clearly out of our element in San Jose, the work pressures on Ben were at such a pitch that we all felt enveloped in it and things weren' t going well with Mihiretu. There was a lot yelling in the house. Everyone was yelliing, Ben and me included. I was feeling frustrated and rather hopeless. I'm embarrassed to report that in that conversation with Lorraine, I said that Mihiretu could be "a real asshole" (half-kidding, but even so) and told her that we were thinking about bringing back the art of spanking.

A few days later, Lorraine called me. As delicately as she could, she told me many things I really didn't want to hear. That Mihiretu wasn't naughty, he just didn't know if he could trust me. That I sounded like I was in over my head and maybe I should get some help. Lorraine, I should mention, is the mother of a beautiful and charming four-year-old girl who has been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. Lorraine, in listening to my tirade, recognized herself in the early days of Kiki's treatment. She heard the anger, the sadness, the misunderstanding that comes with parenting a child with challenging behaviors.

I listened as best I could. I didn't say much. I couldn't. I dropped a few tears as I sat with the phone to my ear and the kids circling and screaming. It was so hard to hear criticism of my parenting, a category in which I've always prided myself. Even harder because I knew it was true.

Immediately, Ben and I enacted a moratorium on yelling. My perspective widened and I was able again to see at least part of the larger picture instead of the tiny beam I had been stuck in. I called my social worker. And a few weeks ago, we had our first session of P.C.I.T.

P.C.I.T. is Parent-Child-Interactive-Therapy. The basic premise being that by praising the behaviors you want your child to continue and ignoring the ones you don't, you encourage a deeper bond. In play therapy, the parent practices the tools. They include general praise ("Good job!"), labeled praise ("Good job putting those legos together!"), description ("And now you're putting the blue lego on the green lego."), reflection (Mihiretu says, "Lego goes up" and I say "The lego is going up!") and enthusiasm ("Wow, legos!!"). All these elements should work to help the child and parent attach and to foster an atmosphere of cooperation.

I sit in a small room with Mihiretu for an hour, playing with him, wearing an earpiece. The therapist sits behind a one-way mirror and gives me prompts. "Say, 'Oh, thank you, Mihiretu, for sitting in your chair so nicely'" and when I manage to praise him well on my own, I get, "Oh, Liz, that was such nice labeled praise." Once, when I was feeling feisty, I said, "Oh, Ruth, such nice labeled praise of my labeled praise!"

It's easy to ridicule therapy talk. Ben, in a past relationship, logged some time in couples therapy. Every time we have an argument, he mirrors me. "I hear, Liz, that you feel unappreciated when I don't thank you for making dinner." It drives me crazy. Particularly when he wants me to mirror him. I feel trapped in therapy land, boxed in by rules.

But the thing is, as cold as these rules can sometimes feel, they work. Ben and I really do communicate better when we know that the other one is hearing what we're saying. And Mihiretu blossoms under praise. I find myself tearing up when the therapist tells me what a good job I'm doing with him. How we've come so far and our prospects are so bright. I know she says this to everyone. I know she's practicing the method. But I still feel myself buoyed by her affirmations.

My mother was a supreme nurturer. It might have been a slightly different story for my siblings, but by the time she got to me, nine years after her previous child, she was nothing but positive. She was always telling me how bright I was, how kind, how good I was at everything I attempted. Even now, in the late stages of Alzheimers, the first thing out of her mouth when she sees me is how beautiful I look. She can't remember my name but she can remember to praise me.

She rarely yelled. She slapped me only once, on the wrist, when she caught me playing with a sharp knife. The worst thing she had to say when I misbehaved (which, no surprise, given my kind treatment, was almost never) was that she was disappointed in me. At which point I'd run to my room and cry for hours.

One would think that with a model like this, my parenting style would be hyper-nurture. And I do a lot of nurturing, on my own, without prompting. But the pressures just now are huge. A brand new town that doesn't feel like a fit. Three small children. And the smallest of these young children doing everything he can to test me. Sometimes, quite simply, I fail the test.

We fight valiantly to keep things positive with the kids these days. I try to remind myself that I'm the adult in the situation and I should act like it. And already, things feel different with Mihiretu. When I used to imagine our shared future, I saw myself visiting him at the state penitentary. These days, the path seems clear towards a whole, happy, adult Mihiretu. And a relationship between us that is not only of necessity but also of love.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Through this tumultuous year, the adoption, the move to San Jose, I've been wrestling with the idea of fate. Or maybe the idea of faith. Why things happen the way they do, if they happen for a reason and if, as the optimist drowning inside me still hopes, it's all for the best.

I'm always looking for signs, this year and every year. Not necessarily of God. I don't believe in the bearded man in the white robe, and though I'm sure Jesus was a wise and dynamic leader, all that rising from the dead stuff sounds, to this agnostic ear, like a ghost story. I do, however, in my Northern California way, believe in some kind of divine presence. Some force that unites us. And I believe that sometimes that force makes itself known.

When we were in the first stages of weighing the adoption question, Ben and I went to an informational meeting of the adoption agency we would eventually use. We arrived early and sat in the parking lot talking about this great big idea. I reclined my seat and watched the sky. We were under sodium lights, the windshield was none too clean and the sky was almost completely cloudy. There was just a tiny hole through which the black night was revealed. As I sat there and contemplated the specter of this new child, out of this bit of black streaked a bold, bright, shooting star. As we pondered this huge question, it seemed that we got a big yes.

Months later, Ben had a bit of a crisis of faith. Up until that point, I had been the strong advocate for a third child. Ben had been the voice of reason. And that night, again, he aired his fears. Could we handle another child when often it felt like we could barely handle the two we had. Was it right to bring a child of color into lily-white Marin. Should we really consider adopting a toddler, knowing all we did about attachment disorder. Did we want to risk fucking up this tremendously good thing that was our family.

This time, instead of trying to argue him out of it, I had a moment of zen. I said I thought we would get the child we were supposed to get, if we were supposed to get one. That if it wasn't meant to be, we'd know it.

A few minutes later, I turned on the radio. Immediately, the clipped voice of the BBC announced that the world food shortage was beginning to affect Ethiopia. That millions of orphans were facing the possibility of famine. Up to that point in the adoption process, I'd never heard about Ethiopia in the news. My earlier calm was shattered. The weeping started like flipping a switch. I told Ben I felt like our kid was tapping us on the shoulder.

While we were waiting for our referral of a child, the four of us talked a lot about who this kid (we assumed a boy) might be and what he might have been through. We often wondered what he might be doing at any particular moment. One night we all held hands, closed our eyes and pictured him. Then we reported to each other what we had seen.

Lana saw a little boy who was upset because he didn't have any toys. Mae also pictured a sad little creature. We'd been talking about how he might not have enough to eat, how he might not have a mom, so it made sense that this was how the girls interpreted it. Ben saw a boy with a fuzzy Afro against a white background. He was peaceful.

I saw a baby. He was maybe nine months old. He was wrapped in a blanket and held in a woman's arms. He was beautiful and clearly a strong spirit. He didn't seem sad or scared. Just watchful.

When I think of that vision now, it seems exactly like Mihiretu. It seems like I could see him. That maybe Ben and the girls saw him, too.

Looking back on all of those flashes of clarity, of feeling touched by him, by Mihiretu in particular, is comforting. It seems like maybe there was something larger at work. Larger than Ben, larger than me. That this adoption, which before we brought Mihiretu home, anyway, sometimes seemed like such a weird idea, is more than an outgrowth of my will. That Mihiretu is meant to be with us as much as those girls that grew in my belly, that I knew from the instant of conception. With each day that passes, I'm more sure of that.